28 September, 2023


Prophets Also Err: Darwin And Marx – Science Of Change

By Kumar David

Prof Kumar David

Unless you knew it, I am sure you will be surprised to hear that Darwin never once used the term evolution in Origin of Species – he used “evolved”, in the last line of the book, simply as a generic past tense of evolve, not subject-matter terminology. You may also be surprised to learn that Marx, never once in his entire life’s opus, used the double-barrelled term “dialectical materialism”; even the solo from  “dialectic” is absent from the substantive text of the three volumes of Capital. (It appears five times, all on the same page, in the Afterword to the Second German Edition of Volume 1). Both Darwin and Marx were too busy describing, delineating, adumbrating and elucidating the causes and workings of change (in the natural world and in society, respectively) to have time for catchy phraseology.

The immensity and intensity of their achievements are breathtaking; and build on insights dug up by others. Darwin poured over Leyell’s geology, Lamark’s version of evolution, and Linnaeus’s taxonomy; Marx was steeped in Hegel, Smith, Ricardo, Saint-Simon, Feuerbach, Proudhon, trade and output statistics and factory inspector’s reports! What is distinctive about their lines of attack is systematic, rigorous and concrete attention to the nitty-gritty details of incessant change, evolution-revolution, the dialectic, or whatever you call it.  Both differed from abstract exponents like the Buddha (impermanence), Hereclitus the Foggy (“everything flows”), and previous thinkers sensitive to the permanence of impermanence, in that prior to abstraction, they established concrete causes and effects empirically. They steadfastly pursued hard evidence, as only materialists do; in a word, they were scientists.

However, what is also amazing, or rather, not amazing but fascinating as ‘Life’s Like That’ type episodes, are the mistakes they made. How much they missed! What continents of knowledge, standing on their shoulders, the throng that came afterwards, opened up! Neither Darwin nor Marx has, as yet, been shown to have erred methodologically, in a fundamental way, but they could not escape the limitations of their times and the primitiveness of the techniques of yore. Furthermore, they worked with weak support systems because their views were abominations that horrified religious and state authorities, and shunned by ‘respectable’ society. Darwin had but a small support group, Charles Leyell, Joseph Hooker, the American Asa Gray, and above all his bulldog Huxley. Marx had only Engels for intellectual sustenance, and the working class First International for institutional support. It’s so immeasurably different today.

Super Darwinism

I have coined the term Super-Darwinism to denote something very distinct from Neo-Darwinism which gained prominence after the end of the Second World War. Neo-Darwinism is the marriage o fDarwin and genetics. Darwin was certain that favourable characteristics, chosen by a process of natural selection, would be passed on to progeny. But how did it happen, what was the mechanism by which inheritance occurred? He did not know. First Mendelevian inheritance as empirical observation and measurement, then the identification of chromosomes and genes, and finally the fingering of DNA’s precise mechanisms, solved Darwinism’s dilemma. We now know how, if a favourable characteristic is acquired (by mutation) by an individual, it is passed on to progeny and spreads into the population. That is the heart of Neo-Darwinism.

By Super-Darwinism (SD) I refer to the reverse of the intellectual isolation that Darwin suffered in his lifetime. There has been an explosion of research in every leading university, in every part of the world, in many state and privately funded research institutes, and in a plethora of field studies. In the last thirty years there must have been between 10,000 and 25,000 research students, research scientists and investigators probing evolution, debating whether such and such a mechanism operates this way or that, counting, measuring. (The higher number is if you add geneticists with overlapping Darwinian interests). There are tens of laboratories with slick facilities and equipment (chemical techniques, X-rays, chromatographs, thousands of computers, sophisticated software, and million dollar gene machines); mind boggling compared toDarwin’s pencil and notebook. The worldwide budget for personnel and equipment, probing evolution in laboratories and in field stations, runs into tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars.

One striking insight SD has provided is how wrong Darwin was in sulking that evolution proceeds at a glacial snail’s pace to be read in the fossil record, locked in epochal geological strata. Speciation (the emergence of a new species),Darwin often said, occurred so slowly that it could never be observed; tens of thousands of generations, spread over millions of years. Welcome to modern science Charlie! Thanks to the massive efforts and gigantic budgets, spontaneous variation, competition, adaptation, natural selection, and even specialisation of deviants to the brink of speciation, have been observed hundreds of times in field studies, including Darwin’s legendary finches in the Galapagos Archipelago. In the laboratory it has gone further; fruit flies and creatures that can run up thousands of generations, say in five years, have mutated from one species to another (unable to interbreed with the original version) under the nose of experimenters. Mutation of viruses has been known for decades. A pharmacopoeia, once supremely successful against malaria, TB, AIDS, streptococci and a host of ravaging viruses, has been defeated by new resistant mutants.

Evolution is not something that happened long ago to be studied in the fossil record alone. No, it is going on all around us, right now, sometimes at break-neck speed. In the time it took you to read up to here, a mutant fruit-fly, algae or virus may have emerged somewhere; and god forbid, another drug resistant virus may perk its head before you finish. Adaptation, short of speciation, that is significant but in-species change, is, of course, common. Crop and animal breeders have used such techniques for centuries. Moths in 19-th and early 20-th Century Europe began to change colour, turning black to take advantage of the camouflage from preying birds that a soot laden environment offered. This, and reversion to a lighter colour, after clean air regulations were tightened in the 1960s, are well documented. Tragically, reproduction of tusk-less elephants is increasing over natural born tuskers in Africa because the gene for tusks is being “selected against” (shorter life span, hence less progeny) by poachers.

It was once thought that when isolated, a population group will adapt to new challenges, and eventual speciation would occur through natural selection. Now it is known that even ecological stress can be a driver. Say distribution of nuts on trees changes due to draught, driving lighter members of some bird species into the canopy, while heavier members descend or become ground dwellers. If this is prolonged, statistical differentiation of the physiology of progeny has been observed, starting from the very next generation. If this environmental stress is persistent, divergence into two species seems inevitable. Speciation can be fast, widespread, and have many possible drivers

Marxism against Marx

The materialist thrust that Marx injected, the primacy of technology, economic advantage, productive power, classes and the sway these hold over states, nations and ethnicities is now taken for granted in scholarship, politics and diplomacy. It is an unconscious present in every theoretical toolkit; as natural as breathing; but not so before Marx. It was a long struggle to drag materialism out of the closet of hypocrisy and self-deception. Nevertheless, if Darwin the dullard was cautious and slow, Marx was often mercurial and hasty. History has been a great deal more sticky in abolishing capitalism than Marx’s carbuncles (or was it haemorrhoids?) could bear. Theoretical Marx, however, in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), quoted below, and elsewhere, was a very great deal more circumspect than impatient, irritable, revolutionary Marx.

“No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society”

A deterministic reading cannot be hung on these words. But in hindsight, one can ask; was capitalism rotten, overripe, and its overthrow overdue, when its natural child, the Great Depression, set the stage for mass slaughter of tens of millions in the Second World War? I think yes. And yes, conditions for a better society had matured in the entrails of the old. Nevertheless, the transition was defeated; man’s consciousness and political leadership failed. History, like evolution, is not deterministic. An admittedly weak analogy might be as follows: The carrier of a favourable adaptation turns right, into the forest, and perishes; but the left fork to the savannah could have led to an environment in which in which it would have flourished.

Global capitalism is passing through a deep and prolonged recession, a New Depression with no end in sight. First, has capitalism reached another terminal turning point; second, have conditions for a better world matured? Here’s one last analogy. There have been five mass extinctions on the planet (some say manmade ecological disaster is steering towards a sixth). The most recent at the end of the Cretaceous period was 65 million years ago, when collision with a meteor about the size of Pidurutalagala Range, spewed so much matter into the air that it blocked the sun, and winter prevailed for years. Many species, including the much loved dinosaurs went instinct. But sneaking in the shadows was a novelty that had made its first appearance a little earlier. The rest of the story, about mammals, about us, about mind, and about consciousness, is well known.

You ask me whether the social and economic disintegration now spreading across the globe will be the harbinger of a brave new world. The material conditions for a prosperous and cooperative humanity are at hand (the material part, thanks to the immense productive powers unleashed by capitalism). But how do men and women think and act in modern times? What the morality? It doesn’t look too good, does it? I don’t know the answer, nobody does; but we will find out, after the event. It was old Hegel who grumbled that Minerva’s Owl only flew at dusk! 

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Latest comments

  • 0

    It is obvious that the writer is not familiar with the basics of biology, molecular biology in particular.

    Darwin had no background in science (he was a theologist!) and he made his stupid deductions based on morphological and skeletal observations to construct a fairy tale. Huxley spread this.

    Development of new species has never happened according to the Darwin method. Adaptation of species yes.

    The new science of molecular biology does not support any of Darwin’s suppositions.

    But Darwin lives on, on the shoulders of ignoramuses!

    • 0

      Truth Seeker, it is just as obvious that you have even less familiarity with those subjects. You are quite incorrect in almost all of your assertions. First, Darwin was indeed familiar with biology. He had as thorough an education in biology as it was possible to get at the time. Of course he did not have familiarity with molecular biology since the field did not yet exist, that is the point of the article, isn’t it? Again, his credentials as a scientist were are strong as it was possible to have at the time, given that while he was doing his studies the term “scientist” had not yet even been coined! And to say he was a theologist and not a scientist is particularly disingenuous since virtually all of the people we would call scientists (then called “naturalists”) were theologists as well, naturalism considered at the time to be a part of theology.

      As the article notes, Darwin’s methodology was impeccable, a model for later generations. To call them “stupid” is indeed stupid itself and shows no understanding of his work at all or the field.

      And as the article also notes, a number of instances of modern speciation have been recorded and published, along with many more divergences that will undoubtedly become new species given time. You seem to have fallen headlong into the fallacy of “micro” vs. “macro” evolution, another sign of someone who does not understand evolution at all.

  • 0

    Excellent. I am wiser having read your essay. Does everything come to fruition or maturity before renewal? May be. Perhaps the progression of plant and animal life shows us a process of maturation and decay. Is renewal the same as rebirth? Or is it merely an explanation of a continuous observable process only, without individual identity? What is renewed is not the same but also the same? Besides the applicability to life forms, there is a definite parallel with respect to ideas and theories including those of economic and political thought. Perhaps what we are experiencing is a time of maturation. What bothers me is the question whether our society is presently undergoing mutation and not maturation.

    • 0

      The above point is proven without doubt!

    • 0

      If you are not a communist before thirty you have no heart. If you are a communist after thirty you have no brains’. Theory of marx that labor only adds value is perfectly right. But without Capital nothing would work and the rsik the Capital takes, should be rewarded with Surplus value to to attract it. Marx’s disease dignosis is right but the treatment of communism was not perfect. I was amazed by the solution sharia law, in financial matters only, to this disease. The risk is taken and capital is given by the society as a whole in the sharia law. May be if the communist have understood the Sharia law, they would have adopted it, because it encourageous an equittable distribution of surplus value to the society without killing growth. Killing the growth is the reason communism coudl not hold on in Russia and will never come stay even though I belived in my young days going by my heart, the religion of the world would be coommunism one day

      • 0

        This is a goodpoint about the difference between “Marx’s diagnoisis and his prescription”. His diagnosis was perfect, but his prescription of socialism was only contained in a few brush strokes and generalisations. No where are detailed schema laid out for socialism or communism – just some tantalising comments.

        Note that Darwin did not even attempt a sketch about the future. He was content to explain evolution by natural selection, but made no attempt to predict what the “next” species, on any evolutionary branch, would be.

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